It took me twenty years to learn to like Anthy Himemiya.
I much preferred Utena—after all, she was the titular character of Revolutionary Girl Utena, a 1996 manga turned into an anime in the following year that follows Utena’s quest to free Anthy from ownership by their school’s Student Council. Utena finds herself fighting a series of increasingly bizarre duels, with Anthy—the “Rose Bride”—being given to each victor. At the end of this tournament, the champion will be granted the power to “revolutionize the world.”
Utena isn’t like “other girls.” Having witnessed the kind deeds of a prince in her childhood, she decides to become a prince herself—she learns to wield a sword, wears a jaunty boys’ uniform, acts chivalrously, and enthralls her female classmates with her bold demeanor. In contrast, Anthy, one of the only dark skinned characters, is a plain Jane who is frequently pushed around. She wears the dull school uniform and is constantly getting slapped. As a young black girl, she was the opposite of what I wanted for myself. I wanted to be bold, inspirational, and certainly not an unassertive drudge.
I grew up on books like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, where the heroine Cimorene was “different than the other silly princesses” who only wanted to go to balls, and Song of the Lioness, whose protagonist Alanna was a brave rebel for picking up a sword and fighting. The authors may have intended the message to be that girls can be heroic protagonists who drive the story instead of passive onlookers or prizes, but the message I got was that girls with a feminine demeanor and interests were less than. And so, I decided that I didn’t want to be that weird girl Anthy taking care of the roses—I wanted to be the heroine of the story.
The girl who isn’t like other girls often “wins”. The guy gushes “you’re nothing like those silly, shallow other girls.” In Utena, Anthy’s villainous brother Akio tries this angle, telling Utena that it must be hard to be friends with Anthy. But as Anthy says “all girls are Rose Brides. That is, being the “different girl” is a false escape from a world that hates women—notice how Akio thinks Utena would make a “pretty princess” if he could clip her wings.
Misogynists like Touga—the head of the student council which duels among themselves for control of Anthy—and Akio are written as despising femininity, seeing it as synonymous with weakness even as they desire to own it for themselves. Akio describes it as being a “living corpse,” and Anthy plays the part of the “sexy lamp”—a near literal object. Anthy plays that role and seems to believe it—that her prince can only be a man, because only men or those who have taken on a male role can have agency. Of course, the girl not like other girls lives on tenuous of male approval a state that puts her in just as much of a cage as all other women.
The so-called comedy episodes are where Anthy’s true agency shows. In the curry trip episode, where Anthy’s magic first appears under the guise of a “lol, feminine women can’t cook” joke, her malice strikes out laterally—attacking Nanami, a blonde prima donna who masterminds the abuse of others but never dirties her own hands. The body switching shenanigans of the episode, although at the end revealed to be due to “Anthy’s cooking” and not the “special spice” that Nanami’s flunkies put into the curry, causes Nanami to make a trip to India, where she is stalked by elephants.
It turns out that Anthy has power, she’s just hiding it for much of the series. Her story echoes that of so many women who have the power, energy and passion to be the heroes of a story, but are shunted to the sidelines. She absorbs these pains, but with nowhere to go, they become dangerous magic.
Even though Akio is thought to be the powerful one, he’s nothing without Anthy, and he has to manipulate and abuse her to cage her power. Her realizing this and owning her own power is the key part of the story. Utena helps her see that, but ultimately Anthy has to save herself.. The power of this story is that regardless of individual choices and efforts to escape the pressure of patriarchy, all women are bonded by the oppressions they face. Utena isn’t immune from male abuse of power, as Akio deploys some of the same tactics he uses against Anthy to “seduce” Utena and gaslight her into believing she’s to blame. Refusing the trappings of femininity may win approval, but celebrated or debased, Utena and Anthy are both caught in the web of misogyny.
We see Anthy’s full bravery and willingness to sacrifice in episode 34, when she dies to protect her brother. even though she’s ultimately blamed for his death. She is blamed throughout the series. She’s even blamed for things that have little to do with her, like student council member Touga getting injured for jumping to defend Utena from fellow member Saionji’s blade. Touga’s brave—although manipulative—act has Utena wondering if he’s the prince she has been looking for, but Anthy’s heroic act—to suffer for her brother—only gets her blame. A man’s sacrifice is extraordinary, a woman sacrificing everything is business as usual.
In the end, Anthy is more than what is done to her. Too often a story kicks off with sexual violence, and it is the woman’s entire story. Anthy’s story starts that way, as we learn with the reveal of her sexual abuse, but with her exit from Ohtori, it doesn’t have to end that way.
I started to love Anthy once I was able to see that appearance isn’t destiny. She may seem to be powerless and weak, but this conceals a deep strength. She is able to see a path outside of the confines of the roles pressed upon both her and Utena, and ultimately that saves them both.